Strengthen your company culture with casual criticism

by | May 20, 2021

Do your employees work so hard to get everything right that they never take any risks? Introducing casual criticism into your culture can actually encourage your employees to take risks, hone their strongest ideas and ultimately come up with their best work.

In this case, casual criticism refers to constructive criticism that inherently isn’t personal. The difference between this and normal constructive criticism comes both from the delivery and the cultural context of your company. It takes effort and time, but building a culture that shows your employees how much they’re valued, even when they make mistakes, drop the ball or simply don’t have their best day, allows you to make genuine progress.

This works by taking away the personal stakes of being right or wrong; instead of employees needing to prove they’re right or that they didn’t actually make a mistake in order to keep their spot on the team, a culture of casual criticism allows them to skip the identity crisis and immediately move towards a strong solution.

Here are a few guidelines for implementing a culture of casual criticism:

1. Start by reinforcing worth.

Even though tangible work contributions are what makes employees vital to keep around, they want to know that their employers care about them as people — and this will only get more important as younger generations become part of the workforce. You may also notice, when working with high-performing people who’ve had success throughout their careers and schooling, that your employees have rarely received significant criticism. They’re used to being right and being able to prove it.

Not all high-performing people maintain a perfectionist identification, but many do and struggle with even small instances of falling short. As managers start introducing casual criticism into your company’s culture, make sure they’re also verbalizing the things they notice employees excelling at. They could even try the “compliment sandwich” method of beginning and ending with something positive.

2. Own your shortcomings.

The best way to show everyone else that it’s okay to offer criticism is to handle criticism well. Sometimes, that can mean starting by a manager or leader acknowledging a mistake they made or a way that something they worked on in the past could be improved on.

A coworker of mine modeled this really well recently after they made a comment that they later realized was sexist. They privately and succinctly sent a message to everyone in the conversation, calling attention to what they said and why it doesn’t actually align with their values. This acknowledgement was a great opportunity for everyone involved in the conversation to consider their own language choices while also seeing that slip ups, shortcomings and mistakes are inevitable; a culture of casual criticism turns these mistakes into growth.

3. High-opportunity environments will also be high-mistake environments.

There are evident strategic tradeoffs between experimentation and effectiveness. However, as companies try to take advantage of the critical long-term benefits of experimentation, they sometimes hold on to the expectations of consistency that carry over from tried-and-true ways of doing things.

Casual criticism, as it isn’t personal or overly harsh, gives room for this experimentation and gives your organization the flexibility to handle some failed hypotheses. Going into each experimental endeavor with an awareness that it’s likely to fail prevents disappointment while also giving you the platform to break down why something failed and what could have led it to success.

4. This is not a license to be unkind.

Most of the time, when people say, “You’re just mad at me for being honest,” they’ve just been an ass. Casual criticism is meant to be an alternative to both cruel honesty and avoidance of confrontation. It’s a method of presenting problems as genuine growth opportunities.

Part of infusing kindness into casual criticism is being mindful of context. If your managers have historically shied away from talking about what’s lacking from someone’s work performance, giving them a stern breakdown of their 20 biggest weaknesses is not the best way to start. Along the same lines, they might be able to cut to the chase more with an employee that they’ve built up more rapport with, whereas a recent hire could find this more destabilizing.

We know that all people make mistakes, have off days and have weaknesses. Drawing casual attention to these shortcomings helps all of us to grow and create better businesses.

Want to improve communications in your office? Tribe can help.

Subscribe to our internal communications blog